GORE IN THE STORE
GANGS OF LONDON ****
Created by Gareth Evans.
Starring Sope Dirisu, Joe Cole, Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley.
Crime thriller, U.K.
Now screening on Sky Atlantic.
As a title, Gangs of London is not one that inspires much confidence. What comes to mind is the countless Guy Richie inspired cockney geezer knock offs featuring ex-Eastenders swearing, posturing and waving guns about with as much conviction as a child in a playground with his or her new water pistol. However, Gangs of London sets itself out immediately as an entirely different kind of beast from the first scene. Created by THE RAID'S Gareth Evans, he also directs a handful of episodes. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY comes to mind more than any other recent gangster film and raises the bar for television in terms of action with an extra-large helping of gratuitous violence to keep you gripped throughout.
Beginning with an inverted, sweeping shot of the London skyline that pulls back to reveal an unfortunate victim hanging from an in construction skyscraper, this poor victim of circumstance is then set on fire before he plunges screaming to his death. A statement of intent for not only the series in terms of its violent storytelling but the character of Sean Wallace, played by Peaky Blinders Joe Cole, the new head of his recently murdered father's crime dynasty. His quest to find who is responsible takes in Elliot, Sope Dirisu, a low-level earner for the family who wants to rise through the ranks. We then bear witness through Elliot's investigation to who murdered the fearsome Finn Wallace, played fiercely in flashback by Colm Meaney, and why.
From here, we journey through a ruthless underworld that seeps into nearly all aspects of London society and beyond. Council schemes, run-down pubs and financial boardrooms looking down on it all as gangsters shrewdly launder cash from illegal operations into legitimate investments with vast financial implications that will shape the city itself. This ruthless capitalism spans across the world, taking in the Turkish Kurdish conflict, Nigeria's booming economy and back to Britain where illegal ammo is manufactured in a cosy house in the remote countryside.
The ambitious nature of its multi-national story with its various strands and large cast is assuredly told. The viewer is never left confused as it zips from the Coles coming under fire from an unknown enemy to their close allies, the Dumani family who rose through the ranks of the capital city's society by their side. While Ed, the head of the Dumani family, tries to curb Joe's blood thirst for revenge that threatens to take their various operations down by plunging into conflict with the Turkish, Pakistani drug cartels, Yardies and gipsy clans among others.
Dirisu impresses as what passes for a good guy in this cast of gangsters, murderers and crooked money men. It is a far cry from his performance in the Channel 4 series HUMANS where he portrayed a quiet android. Getting as much use from an ashtray and a single dart in a pub brawl that spills out into the streets he goes through some exhausting and fantastically choreographed fight scenes as the series progresses. Joe Cole also impresses as the quietly spoken yet psychopathic Sean, guided on by his own equally unhinged mother Marian, Michelle Fairley. Also given a chance to shine after his previous collaboration with Gareth Evans, as the deranged villain Quinn in APOSTLE, is Mark Lewis Jones. As the head of a violent clan of gipsies, he gets to take part in two of the most impressive action sequences in recent television history.
Episode five, also directed by Evans, with its sustained set piece of a house under siege ranks as highly as anything he directed in The Raid films. Indeed any film released on the big screen this year would do well to come close to matching it in terms of choreography and execution. It is the series most exciting episode culminating in a showdown with expertly directed and unforgettable details such as the slow-motion display of the damage a grenade does to a body. The rest of the episodes are directed by a pair of directors who should be familiar to readers of the site, Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens. They efficiently manage to sustain a high level of quality in terms of action and storytelling.
The violent imagery will no doubt be off-putting for casual viewers. The imagery of severed hands arranged decoratively on a bankers desk, or the horrible sight of a man being cooked alive among the amount of exploding heads and bloodshed would make Mary Whitehouse's head spin off into orbit if she was still around. If however you are not exhausted by the carnage you will no doubt be excited by the twisting storyline and the surprises it holds in store. By the final episode, without going into spoilers, so much is left in ruins and thrown up in the air, with many intriguing new elements at play, that the prospect of a second season is hopefully announced soon.
With a scope that comes close to epic that seems to promise more if allowed to continue, it raises the bar for British gangsters on screen. While recalling the crime meets capitalism story beats of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY it also recalls the crime flicks of John Woo and Ringo Lam and their stories of honour and betrayal among criminals. As a showcase for Evan's ambition in action storytelling, it succeeds admirably and proves that Hardy and Gens are no slouches either when given the right script. As a piece of highly polished pulp storytelling with its vast cast of gangs and clans at each other's throat for a kingdom, it could very well be the criminal equivalent of GAME OF THRONES. But with flame throwers, cattle stun guns, high powered sniper rifles, darts and gas canisters instead of dragons. The body count is just as high.